13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Soon after the release of The Island, a futuristic desktop thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, director Michael Bay spoke up to the fierce critics who reveled in massacring every single one of his films since Bad Boys first premiered back in 1995. “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime,” Bay said, fully aware that each one of his efforts, despite being a running gag among cinephiles, consistently make tons and tons of money.
Such a statement is both a blessing and a curse. When Pain & Gain came out in 2013, the less cynical among us decided to play by Bay’s rules and take the film for what it was: loud, muscle-y, violent, but exciting in the way a movie about bros made for bros is exciting. It was based on true events, but it was never self-serious and knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be. The same logic can not be applied to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an adaption of the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff that dissects what occurred in Benghazi, Libya on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. With 13 Hours, Bay doesn’t stray too far from his formula and creates a movie that appears to be a natural addition to his filmography, a “movie for teenage boys.” Unfortunately the moment the phrase “This is a true story” appears in military type over a black screen, Bay’s approach is mostly an erroneous one.
Like the book that inspired it, 13 Hours is wisely apolitical, at least in some respects. There’s no mention of Hillary Clinton’s involvement or any specific government officials who may have exacerbated the situation. It’s focus is narrow, simple, on the six CIA contractors who bravely defended an American diplomatic compound (actually a mansion abandoned by a wealthy local) and a covert CIA annex just a mile away. It begins with one of them, Jack Da Silva, played by John Krasinski, arriving to the Libyan port city in the midst of conflict. Bay focuses in on the poverty; once beautiful and ancient monuments now in ruins, children playing on the street, older men who are indifferent to conflict—whose eyes only leave the TV screen for prayer—and gunmen, hot-blooded Libyans prepared to fight for the future of their country.
Da Silva, our eyes and ears, is immediately anxious, aware that he’s in a country where he’s mostly unwanted. It’s not his first time in the field, but we sense it probably is the first time he’s ever felt this isolated, helpless, and claustrophobic. A fellow soldier at one point remarks that everyone around him is an enemy until they are not. But the first few days of Da Silva’s arrival are pretty uneventful. The soldiers lift weights (Krasinski took the Chris Pratt approach and is massive), FaceTime their wives, kids, and dogs, and argue with the CIA chief, who takes every opportunity to let the soldiers know that they are on his turf. Naturally, things take a turn for the worse.
The evening of September 11, 2012 a group of Libyan militiamen attack a compound where the U.S. Ambassador to Libya is staying on his visit from Tripoli. While the film makes it clear that he’s beloved by many nationals, his presence also marks an anger towards American interference in the North African country. They burst into the compound, fire rockets and burn the building to the ground, a first step to a 13 hour-long fight that eventually moves to the annex, where the CIA thought they were safe. The real tragedy? The six soldiers are on their own. No American or foreign aid comes to their assistance.
In these moments of battle, it’s becomes difficult not to feel on edge. Bay knows guns and explosions better than most, and while overlong (144 minutes), there are some real gruesome scenes that show the six Americans defending the annex against the attacking Libyans, who begin to encroach on the space. It’s a tense couple of hours, as the soldiers remain oblivious to who will strike and how they will do it. These scenes are probably the best filmed too. The annex keeps the lights dim, and the extended shot of the Libyan militiamen nearing the annex is genuinely frightening. It truly is some of Bay’s best camera work.
The talky moments, on the other hand, are expectedly overwrought, sentimental. There’s talk about the wives and kids left at home, but it feels insincere, and even the tender image of a soldier holding a photograph of loved ones he may never see again, feels more like a device than a genuine gesture of fear and love. There’s also the expected bro-isms, a line an American soldier makes about a devoted Libyan “friendly” who he will have to break up with once the conflict subsides. Perhaps it’s the way these soldiers actually communicate between themselves, but in Bay’s film the camaraderie between these guys is more reminiscent of lines uttered between the talking turtles in Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation.
There are other iffy moments. 13 Hours is an American movie. That’s not an inherent criticism, but the film has little, or superficial interest in those not defending our country. The Libyan militiamen are simply bodies, radicals who are after American lives. Even if we wanted to take this as a pure action movie with no political aspirations, their two-dimensionality make them feel more like Xbox characters needed to be eliminated, than an actual presence with their own motivations (right or wrong). But like American Sniper before it, Bay set out on making a movie about American heroes, and other than a language aid and a few brave Libyans who want to help the Americans, a Libyan presence feels absent, which is unfortunate considering the whole movie takes place in Libya.
13 Hours may not be Bay’s worst effort (see Transformers 2, 3, and 4) and will certainly have its supporters, but there’s something about taking a complex political catastrophe and turning it into a teenage boy action movie that keeps it from being fascinating into just merely amusing.